Lou Reed didn’t take fans for a walk on the side as much as on a gritty guided tour through his own dark, underground cavern of stark cool, oozing with characters by turns mysterious, sleazy and alluring.
There was Candy, the backroom darling who came out from on the Island. Don't forget Holly, who plucked her eyebrows on the way from Miami, F-L-A, shaved her legs – and then he was a she. And, of course, Sweet Jane, to whom heavenly wine and roses seem to whisper when she smiles. But the most compelling character of the bunch was Reed himself, with his thin frame, ever-present black T-shirt and knowing deadpan visage that defied convention and time.
Time, sadly caught up with the singer and songwriter, who died Sunday at age 71, leaving a legacy as a pioneering art rocker and music icon whose influence far exceeded his record sales.
Reed fronted The Velvet Underground, whose groundbreaking, if not initially earth-shattering debut album – “The Velvet Underground & Nico” – arrived in 1967, three months before “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The Underground instantly heaped an overt dollop of sex and drugs onto rock and roll, beating other, bigger acts to the punch.
But more significantly, Reed and band mates John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker injected an edgy artsy sensibility into the 1960s music explosion, setting the tone with the inaugural album’s cover, which featured a ripening banana illustration by their “producer” and patron, Andy Warhol.
The album mixed drug-driven tales like “Heroin” (“When I put a spike into my vein, and I'll tell you, things aren't quite the same”) and the S&M-infused “Venus in Furs” (“Strike, dear mistress and cure his heart”) with moments of smack-pure sweetness, as in the haunting and ethereal “I’ll be Your Mirror” (“I find it hard to believe you don't know the beauty that you are”).
The group’s avant-garde art-and-college crowd style blended a sense of rebellion, raw energy, and, at times, outright noise, presaging acts from the Ramones to the Talking Heads. Reed’s work with The Velvet Underground and solo efforts from “Walk on the Wild Side” to the dark 1973 rock opera “Berlin” earned him a following he never shook during a nearly five-decade career.
Those of us lucky enough to have seen Reed on stage were treated to a great show, with his deceivingly effective near-monotone, often-staccato delivery of his bleak musical poetry becoming oddly more appropriate with age. But even better was occasionally spotting him around New York, as part of the crowd at concerts or museums, or strolling the city streets that gave him his greatest material, often with his wife, the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, by his side.
His music doesn’t live on as much as lurk deep inside fans and in the work of the artists he inspired, from punks to folkies to New Wavers and beyond. Reed, who escorted us through a wild side, both observed and imagined, on the wings of a gliding bass line, no doubt soared off to next side on an aura of cool.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.